Treat data as a source and then open it to the public, says Momi Peralta

Long before data journalism entered the mainstream discourse, La Nacion was pushing the boundaries of what was possible in Argentina, a country without an freedom of information law. If you look back into La Nacion’s efforts to go online and start to treat data as a source, you’ll find Angélica “Momi” Peralta Ramos (@momiperalta), the multimedia development manager who originally launched in the 1990s and now manages its data journalism efforts.

Ramos contends that data-driven innovation is an antidote to budget crises in newsrooms. Her perspective is grounded in experience: Peralta’s team at La Nacion is using data journalism to challenge a FOIA-free culture in Argentina, opening up data for reporting and reuse to holding government accountable. This spring, I interviewed her about her work and perspective. Her answers follow, lightly edited for clarity.

You’re a computer scientist and MBA. How did you end up in journalism?

Years ago, I fell in love with the concept of the Internet. It is the synthesis of what I’d studied: information technology applied to communications. Now, with the opportunity of data journalism, I think there is a new convergence: the extraction and sharing of knowledge through collaboration using technology. I’m curious about everything and love to discover things.

How did your technical and business perspective inform how you approached and La Nacion Data?

In terms of organization, it helped to consider traditional business areas like sales, marketing, customer service, business intelligence, and of course technology and a newsroom for content.

At first, I believed in the unlimited possibilities of technology applied to publishing online, and the power of the net to distribute content. Content was free to access and gratuity became the norm. As consumers embraced it, there was a demand and a market, and when there is a market there are business opportunities, although with a much more fragmented competitive environment.

The same model applies now to data journalism. Building content from data or data platforms must evolve to an economy of scale in which the cost of producing [huge amounts of] content in one single effort tends to zero.

What examples of data-driven journalism should the public know about at La Nacion?

Linked below is a selection of 2013 projects. Some of them are finalists in the 2014 Data Journalism Awards! Please watch the videos inside the posts, as we explained how we manage to extract, transform, build and open data in every case.

How you see digital publishing, the Internet and data journalism in South America or globally? What about your peers?

I can’t tell about everyone else’s view, but I think we see it all the same, as both a big challenge and opportunity.

From then on, it’s a matter of being willing to do things. The technology is there, the talent is everywhere, the people who make a difference are the ones you have to gather.

As the context is different in every country and there are obstacles, you have to become a problem solver and be creative, but never stop. For example, if there are language barriers, translate. If there is no open data, start by doing it yourself. If technology is expensive, check first for free versions. Most are enough to do everything you need.

What are the most common tools applied to data journalism at La Nacion?

Collaborative tools. Google Docs, spreadsheets, Open Refine, Junar’s open data platform, Tableau Public for interactive graphs, and now Javascript or D3.js for reusable interactive graphs tied to updated datasets. We love tools that don’t need a developer every time to create interactive content. These are end user´s tools.

Developers are the best for “build once, use many times” kinds of content, developing tools, news applications and for creative problem solving.

What are the basic tools and foundational skills that data journalists need?

First, searching. Using advanced search techniques, in countries like ours, you find there is more on the Deep Web than in the surface.

Then scraping, converting data from PDFs, structuring datasets, and analyzing data. Then, learning to publish in open data formats.

Last, but not least: socializing and sharing your work.

Data journalists need a tolerance for frustration and ability to reinvent and self motivate. Embrace technology. Don’t be afraid to experiment with tools, and learn to ask for help: teamwork is fun.

How do you and your staff keep your skills updated and learn?

We self-teach for free, thanks to the net. We look at best practices and inspiration from other´s cases, then whenever, we can, we for assistance at conferences as NICAR, ISOJ or ONA and follow them online. If there are local trainings, we assist. We went to introductory two-day courses for ArcGIS and Qlikview (business inteliigence software) just to learn the possibilities of these technologies.

We taught ourselves Tableau. An interactive designer and myself took two days off in a Starbucks with the training videos. Then she, learned more in an advanced course.

We love webinars and MOOC, like the Knight Center´s or the EJR’s data journalism MOOC.

We design internal trainings. We have a data journalism training program, now starting our 4th edition, with five days of full-time learning for groups of journalists and designers in our newsroom. We also design Excel courses for analyzing and designing data sets (DIY Data!) and, thanks to our Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellows, we have customized workshops like CartoDB and introductions to D3.js.

We go to hackathons and meetups — nearly every meetup in Buenos Aires. We interact with experts and with journalists and learn a lot there, working in teams.

What are the biggest challenges La Nacion faces in practicing data journalism? What’s changed since 2011, in terms of the environment?

The context. To take just one example, consider the inflation scandal in Argentina. Even The Economist removed our [national] figures from their indicators page. Media that reported private indicators were considered as opposition by the government, which took away most of official advertising from these media, fined private consultants who calculate consumer price indices different than the official, pressed private associations of consumers to stop measuring price and releasing price indexes, and so on.

Regarding official advertising, between 2009 and 2013, we managed to build a dataset. We found out that 50% went to 10 media groups, the ones closer to the government. In the last period, a hairdresser (stylist) received more advertising money than the largest newspapers in Argentina. Here´s how we built and analyzed this dataset.

Last year, independent media suffered an ad ban, as reported in The Wall Street Journal: “Argentina imposes ad ban, businesses said.”

Argentina is ranked 106 / 177 in Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. We still are without a Freedom of Information law.

Regarding open data from governments, there are some initiatives. One that is more advanced is the City of Buenos Aires Open Data portal, but also there are national, some provincial and municipal initiatives starting to publish useful information, and even open data.

Perhaps the best change is that we have is a big hacktivism community of transparency activists, NGOs, journalists and academic experts that are ready to share knowledge for data problem solving as needed or in hackathons.

Our dream is for everyone to understand data as a public service, not only to enhance accountability but to enhance our quality of life.

What’s different about your work today, versus 1995, when went online?

In 1995, we were alone. Everything was new and hard to sell. There was a small audience. Producing content was static, still in two dimensions, perhaps including a picture in .jpg form, and feedback came through e-mail.

Now there is a huge audience, a crowded competitive environment, and things move faster than ever in terms of formats, technologies, businesses and creative uses by audiences. Every day, there are challenges and opportunities to engage where audiences are, and give them something different or useful to remember us and come back.

Why are data journalism and news apps important?

Both move public information closer to the people and literally put data in citizens’ hands.

News apps are great to tell stories, and localize your data, but we need more efforts to humanize data and explain data. [We should] make datasets famous, put them in the center of a conversation of experts first, and in the general public afterwards.

If we report on data, and we open data while reporting, then others can reuse and build another layer of knowledge on top of it. There are risks, if you have the traditional business mindset, but in an open world there is more to win than to lose by opening up.

This is not only a data revolution. It is an open innovation revolution around knowledge. Media must help open data, especially in countries with difficult access to information.

How do Freedom of Information laws relate to data journalism?

FOI laws are vital for journalism, but more vital for citizens in general, for the justice system, for politicians, businesses or investors to make decisions. Anyone can republish information, if she can get it, but there are requests of information with no response at all.

What about open government in general? How does the open data movement relate to data journalism?

The open government movement is happening. We must be ready to receive and process open data, and then tell all the stories hidden in datasets that now may seem raw or distant.

To begin with, it would be useful to have data on open contracts, statements of assets and salaries of public officials, ways to follow the money and compare, so people can help monitor government accountability. Although we dream in open data formats, we love PDFs against receiving print copies.

The open data movement and hacktivism can accelerate the application of technology to ingest large sets of documents, complex documents or large volumes of structured data. This will accelerate and help journalism extract and tell better stories, but also bring tons of information to the light, so everyone can see, process and keep governments accountable.

The way to go for us now is use data for journalism but then open that data. We are building blocks of knowledge and, at the same time, putting this data closer to the people, the experts and the ones who can do better work than ourselves to extract another story or detect spots of corruption.

It makes lots of sense for us to make the effort of typing, building datasets, cleaning, converting and sharing data in open formats, even organizing our own ‘datafest’ to expose data to experts.

Open data will help in the fight against corruption. That is a real need, as here corruption is killing people.